Security in the Twenty-First Century

When set a difficult question for analysis, it is always a good tactic to start by defining one’s terms. There is no problem in interpreting the phrase ‘21st century’. But defining ‘security’ is a subject for a major publication in itself.
First, we have to ask what belongs within the concept of security. Does it cover (a) traditional strategic notions, such as the balance of armaments, the activities of armed forces, and violent conflicts; (b) ‘asymmetrical threats’ like terrorism, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and crime; (c) other dimensions of human security like poverty, disease, the state of the environment, threats to the enjoyment of political and economic liberties, and interpersonal violence? If it covers all of these dimensions, how can they be grouped, weighted and prioritized to arrive at a correct overall perception of security challenges and liabilities as a starting point for action? The answers to this first set of questions will in turn determine what agenda and issues we bring within the scope of ‘security policy’. Roughly speaking, the elements at (a) raise issues of state and quasi-state security, those at (b) concern the security of societies, and those at (c) affect the security of the whole human community and individual humans. The balance we draw between them will have a bearing on where and in what framework we look for solutions: the issues at (a) are normally addressed through national defence policies and by international defence and security organizations such as NATO, the OSCE, and the United Nations, while those at (b) also extend into the fields of competence of ‘internal security’ institutions and corresponding international structures like Interpol. If we include the issues at (c) in our agenda, we must be prepared to work with social and economic organizations, functional global structures like the UN agencies, and - at the other extreme - individual humans, to the extent that a number of problems can only really be solved by changed individual behavior.

Foto: Afghanistan (November 21, 2009) U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, left, receives the Combined Security Transition Command

Two less obvious but important questions are worth considering at this definitional stage. When we contemplate security as a positive good, for whom are we seeking it - for ‘me’ or ‘us’, with ‘them’ or against ‘them’? Do we have a protective, zero-sum vision of security’s benefits or do we see it as something that can, perhaps must, be shared and built collectively? Is my security best expressed in terms of my doing certain things and stopping others doing certain things; or should I be prepared also to abstain from certain things, make unrequited inputs and accept sacrifices to ensure greater security for all? Is security about absence of risk, or presence of opportunity? Many apparently sophisticated current debates about the merits of ‘unilateralism’ versus multilateralism’, or approaches based on ‘might’ versus ‘right’, can be traced back to quite fundamental human instincts and choices of this kind. And finally: security at what price? This is not just a question of considering how much we can afford to pay for a given level of protection, and whether we can and must actually pay for it ourselves. We also need to be alive to the possibility that pursuing security goals in one dimension or/on one assumption may mean a loss of security in some other context (for ourselves and/or others); that short-term improvements in security may carry excessive penalties in the longer run, and so forth. Differently expressed, this question could also be seen as one of risk analysis and risk management, where perfection is never going to be an option and the skill lies in choosing the best of a number of rather ‘fuzzy’ trade-offs.

Needless to say, even this confusing picture is an academic construct and artificially clear-cut. In real life, countries’ security perceptions, priorities and choice of methods are highly contingent on their specific circumstances and political dynamics; on cultural relativity, and individual subjectivity. ‘Fashions’ in security agendas and responses are inherently unstable and rarely move at the same tempo, or in the same direction, as the objective facts of security environment. (For example, an observer from Mars would find it hard to understand why a few envelopes infected with anthrax spores should be seen as a security issue of crisis proportions, while the phenomenon of computer spam which brings economic costs, shock and offence and often incitements to crime into every household and office of the Western world should not be.) The motto of a good security analyst should be like that of a good soldier, to ‘expect the unexpected’; and like the advice given by a former British Foreign Secretary (Lord Salisbury) in the 19th century when confronted with a supposedly life-and-death problem, to ‘use a larger map´.

It is also always good sense to start from what is most familiar, so in trying to review such an impossibly wide subject, I will first address the issues of security in and for Europe; then the Euro-Atlantic relationship; and finally, some additional global dimensions.

European Security
It is useful to start by recalling the security legacy of the 20th century in Europe. The two great post-World War Two Western institutions - NATO and the European Union - kept the peace from the 1940’s to the 1980’s in two ways: deterring the enemy outside (the USSR and Warsaw Pact), and abolishing or at least sublimating conflict inside the Western camp. We are more accustomed to think of the EU as serving the latter purpose, notably through the historic reconciliation between France and Germany: but NATO was in fact also an important vehicle for renewal and reunion between the winners and losers of the last war in Europe; for the consolidation of democracy e.g. in Spain; and most obviously, for holding the US and Europe together. There were of course limits to what either institution could do for the Eastern part of the Continent under Communist occupation. Only towards the end of the cold war period, through CSCE and other processes including trade and modern communications, could Western experience start to spread inside East European societies and not so much hasten their bankruptcy as illustrate how bankrupt they were already. Hence the extraordinary achievement of the Warsaw Pact and USSR breaking up, and Germany being reunified, with hardly a shot being fired (such violence as arose was intra-East rather than East-West).

Immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain everyone expected profound change in European security, but most predictions at the time were far too optimistic or pessimistic. The idealistic view was that a ‘single European house’ would replace the partial and selfish organizations of the past with a ‘comprehensive security’ system. The pessimists warned that the West and a revived Russian Empire would end up fighting over a chaotic Central Europe, and even the West might be ‘renationalized’ after losing its unifying external threat. In fact, the most unlikely scenario was what actually occurred in the 1990’s, namely the largely peaceful extension of Western structures to the entire European continent. Violent conflicts did intervene, but only in former Yugoslavia and parts of the former USSR where overspill was remarkably well contained. NATO proved itself necessary to deal with the FRY crisis, survived the severe pressures the crisis involved, and drew from it lessons for military modernization and burden-sharing. The 

EU continued ‘deepening’ its unique model of integration through the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice, while the reunited Germany if anything underplayed its hand, and British and French idiosyncrasies in security vision were gradually (if still far from completely) reduced. Economic and Monetary Union was smoothly launched at the turn of the 21st century, and at the same point the EU for the first time developed an explicitly military dimension for crisis management - designed in such a way as to produce (inter alia) closer EU-NATO relations.

Meanwhile, all Central European States (now including the Balkans) had come to reject nationalist, regionalist and Russian-led security alternatives in order to concentrate on seeking full membership in both NATO and EU. They accepted and even anticipated these institutions’ normative and “peace-enforcing” effects by democratizing their internal defence arrangements, ending age-old disputes with their neighbors and building “pre-integrative” local cooperation schemes. Russia failed to re-build any security equivalent to the USSR or even to keep the peace on its own territory, let alone re-capture any satellites to the West. After periods of serious tension it ended up acting side by side with the West in successive Balkan crises; accepted the first NATO enlargement: and is now signalling readiness to live with the extension of NATO up to its own boundaries, in return for being allowed closer relations itself with both the EU and NATO.

As a result, Europe today is nearer to the dream of a single peaceful and united continent than anyone might have guessed could be achieved in just 12 years since the end of Cold War. Moreover, our community of nations will be achieving this in a significantly ‘deeper’, more binding and (hopefully) irreversible way than ever before in history, or anywhere else in the world. The planned expansion of NATO and the EU in 2004 means that nearly 30 countries in each case, ranging from the Baltic States to the coast of Black Sea, will join in the most profound variety available of political, economic and military integration. The former Yugoslav states and Albania are also clearly, if slowly, on their way to an ‘integrated’ solution and to becoming a truly European responsibility. Turkey has recently speeded up its own progress towards EU entry - a development which would have enormous strategic implications (EU boundaries with Iraq and Iran!). Non-member states meanwhile cooperate closely with NATO and the EU through Partnership for Peace, the European Economic Area and the EU’s various pre-accession and partnership networks, while Russia has sui generis dialogue and cooperation arrangements (with a clear strategic focus) with both NATO and the EU. At other levels, sub-regional and cross-border groupings draw other national constituencies into stabilizing habits of mutual exchange and cooperation: and while Europe arguably has an excess of institutions all trying to contribute to security in their own way, at least these organizations have learned a lot in the 1990’s about coexisting and sharing work more sensibly with each other.

Success, especially of such a far-reaching nature, brings its own new set of problems. First, there is the issue of how a larger and more diverse membership will affect the enlarged institutions themselves: whether they will face up to the necessary reforms, how they can maintain coherence and efficiency in decision-making, what kind of internal divisions and new power structures may emerge, and whether the whole process is yet sufficiently understood and supported at the popular level. It is also still far from clear whether the problems of the Balkans are really ‘solved’ by the integration perspective—are they ready to behave well with purely European incentives, and can Europe keep them in line without US back-up? Further questions arise along the new extended EU/NATO borders. How far does the zone of ‘convertibility’ to the ‘European way’ actually go (what is the ultimate place of Turkey, Russia, Ukraine and so on?), how can the next stage of (inevitably much slower) conversion be handled, and what goals and frameworks should be set for relations with those ‘new neighbors’ who cannot be converted to (accommodated in) the integration model for foreseeable future? What impact will all this have on West Europe’s still ‘semi-integrated’ states, i.e. those who belong only to one of the major institutions or to neither (the Nordics, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland?) What role will be left for the OSCE and the Council of Europe, whose credibility has hitherto been linked largely with their comprehensive and frontier-breaking membership, when the institutions born in the West themselves become representative of almost the entire continent?

Euro-Atlantic Issues
On the showing of the last decade, the inherent strength (and in-built correctives) of the integration process might well be capable of overcoming this particular set of challenges. But its success in Europe so far has in practice depended greatly on trans-Atlantic strategic protection through NATO, and on a remarkable degree of US understanding and support for European integration itself. Now, all Europeans are having to cope with another set of problems symbolized by 11 September 2001, Afghanistan and Iraq, and which are widely seen as calling some of the basic assumptions of Euro-Atlantic partnership into question. The challenge has become complex and cumulative over the last 2-3 years; but at the cost of some simplification the problems can be traced back to the start of the Bush Administration, when a new team consciously overturned the balance of Clintonian external policies—a balance which had included some irritants for, but which had largely respected the sensibilities as well as the needs of, Europe. Particularly sensitive, because of their connection with ideas of how the global community should be governed, were the Bush team’s repudiation of various arms control treaties and other instruments of global governance like the Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal Court.

The events of 9/11, however, initially brought a strong reaction of shock and sympathy for the US. At a stroke they forced all players to recognize transnational terrorism as a front-rank ‘asymmetric threat’, and the Europeans joined very actively in new counter-measures at the UN (the new Counter-Terrorism Committee) and in the EU’s own Justice and Home Affairs dimension. The war on the Taliban and ensuring change of regime in Afghanistan also passed off in a framework of relative international harmony and with widespread European support. As 2002 drew on, however, the Bush team increasingly linked the terrorist challenge to their homeland with the other ‘new threats’ of WMD proliferation and ‘rogue states’, and set their sights on a specific national adversary in Iraq. In the process they stressed the need to maintain US national supremacy and freedom of action; formulated an explicit doctrine justifying ‘preemptive’ attacks; and increasingly relativised the value of familiar Western institutions (preferring ‘coalitions of the willing’) and of international law (vide the US’s treatment of detainees from Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay). By this stage, increasingly clear intra-West divergences were emerging not so much on the importance of the ‘new threats’ but on questions of diagnosis, priority and cure.

US/Europe/Russian unity was just about maintained nevertheless until the end of 2002: the Europeans went along with big changes at NATO to equip its forces for action anywhere in the world including against terrorist targets, and the UN Security Council voted unanimously for Resolution 1441 imposing a new tough WMD inspections regime on Iraq. The real breakdown came in January-March 2003 as the US decided to attack Iraq anyway without on explicit UN mandate, leaving the Security Council split and leading inter alia to a bitter dispute in NATO over protection for Turkey. Europe found itself damagingly divided across several axes - between the UK/Spain/Italy on one side and France/Germany/Belgium on the other, between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europeans - and at no stage did it have alternative solutions of its own to offer. There was a sense of crisis over the whole credibility and future of the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies (and perhaps its whole ability to bear the burdens of enlargement.). The quandary for Europe was all the sharper because of the absence of any other force capable of blocking the US or of offering policy alternatives: Russia acted within the range of Western reactions (allying itself especially with France and Germany), but by that very token, underlined the loss of any real strategic balance.

These events in the real world have been accompanied by a new outpouring of analytical/philosophical debate, much reflected also in the Western media. There is an emerging common diagnosis of fundamental US/Europe differences (inherent even before Bush), which can be explained by different histories - the US’s rise to a sole super-power status vs. Europe’s 50 years of integration; and by different preferences as well as potentials regarding the use of force, the rules of action, and the vision of a global community. Yet academics are still deeply divided over whether the last few years’ experience points to a constantly widening Atlantic gap, or to a future phase of reconciliation and synthesis - as has been the case in a number of other, very serious 20th-century West-West disputes.

What is the current evidence? At the time of writing the US is seriously bogged down in Iraq, having ‘won the war but not the peace’, and the current trends point to solutions requiring a growing reassertion of the UN’s role, ‘Iraqisation’ and ‘internationalization’ - both to deal with the complexity of the challenge and because the US is fast coming up against the limits of its own abilities, finance, and popular consent. For similar reasons and because the pre-election period in the US is already opening, further unilateral adventures of the same type against North Korea, Iran or Syria can now practically be ruled out. The US cannot ignore these other ‘new threats’ but is trying hard to identify more diplomatic approaches, where it should be easier for Europe to help. The Europeans for their part are showing a certain wish to re-build bridges, keep the temperature down and seek new practical areas for trans-Atlantic cooperation (including Iraq itself, other regional crises, and short-term arms control and non-proliferation challenges). There is a clear effort being made from all sides to conserve NATO, if only as a ‘tool box’ for operations politically brokered elsewhere (like the role it will now take on in Afghanistan), and as a minimal restraint on US adventurism. It is interesting how little is being heard meanwhile from Russia, where President Putin seems to see a chance to concentrate domestic security challenges (Chechnya) and has made little serious attempt to act as a ‘spoiler’. The EU as an institution is also showing a clear tendency to close ranks and work to overcome its own weaknesses, notably as regards external action and the realistic diagnosis of threats. The conclusions of the European Convention include recommendations for stronger political leadership, especially in external affairs; the EU has adopted a general global security strategy and a strategy of its own against WMD proliferation; it has launched a peacekeeping mission without NATO’s help in the Congo; enlargement is still on track and some headway is being made at last on CAP reform; and a serious struggle is going on for at internal economic reform in both Germany and France.

There is some evidence here to support the rebound/centripetal thesis, but not for the comfortable conclusion that “all may be as before”. Nothing can unmake the impact of the recent crisis on mood and perception, on both sides of the Atlantic. The legacy can only be one of increased distrust and uncertainty, and the shaking of faith in Atlantic institutions at least in their present form. While the international community is slowly recovering its unity of purpose, individual leaders are still in big trouble and facing unprecedented inquests over their conduct and motives in the launch of the Iraq campaign. Iraq itself could still go badly wrong, with unforeseeable implications: one should not forget all the ‘dogs that have not barked’ in terms of competing ethnicities within Iraq, regional complications, disturbance of the international oil market and the global economy. More fundamentally, Europe is continuing on a journey away from the US ‘way of being’: the integration process will grow both wider and deeper as a result both of pre-existing plans and of the efforts being made to paper over and compensate for the rifts of Iraq. In the near to medium term, the greater ‘securitization’ of EU ambitions, the politicization of EU leadership, and the accompanying gain in Realpolitik skills may help to control Atlantic crises as Europeans learn to understand security realities better, understand US power better and realize that extreme anti-or pro-US stances are incompatible with their own unity. But in the longer term Europe is likely to move towards supporting the US more selectively, out of calculation and choice rather than sentiment or loyalty, and may develop more genuine alternative choices of its own.

There are still some important unknowns in the prognosis. Is the US really set on a track going irretrievably in the other direction, or could the rather radical experiment in self-justifying unilateralism attempted in 2002-3 bring its own self-corrective lessons? If the US and Europe do become more different and autonomous players over time, do we deduce a ‘multi-polar’ world as a result, how many poles would there be, and how would it be governed - by old-style power balance or with global institutions holding the ring? Or is it more correct to foresee a state of unipolar dominance in which the dominant pole (the West) is internally multi-polar…?

The Global Perspective
It is important to note at this stage that all the above questions and answers are based on a West-West intellectual agenda and on the extrapolation of Western trends. It may be useful to end by posing some questions which arise outside this agenda but which will, at the least, complicate the working-out of European and Atlantic security processes and at worst could drive them dramatically off course. The issues mentioned here are a rather random collection (though several questions are interlinked), and none of them have answers available at this time.

To start with the fashionable topic of nuclear proliferation: should we expect less or more? Can we assume that most local proliferators will continue to be driven by essentially local security motivations, or could some emerge as direct threats and antagonists for us? What impact would this have on international order and power relationships? (NB that similar risks could arise from other ‘destabilizing’ technologies.)

In general, how do we envisage the security development of other regions of the world: polarized/policed/manipulated by the US, or inspired by the European security-through-integration model, or finding models of their own somewhere in between (e.g. local hegemonies)? Where could Russia, China and India fit into this picture as powers in their own right, and as foci or targets for regional security groupings? What will be the longer-term fate and impact of ideas developed in these years by US neo-conservatives about ‘filling gaps’ in the acceptance of Western values, notably in the Middle East and rest of the Islamic world? What are the cultural and practical problems of such ‘enforced’ democracy? What global conditions will actually give ‘democracy’ the best chance, or put it most at risk?

To move to other dimensions of ‘human security’, what will be the impact of climate change (and other environmental damage) both on human welfare in general and on the prospects for armed and other conflicts within the world system? What further disturbances could arise from differential population growth and migration? How can we handle the development of  what will surely be a growing number and wider range of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies, and what will the increasingly diverse make-up of developed communities mean for the future of our style-of-life and democratic participation? Where should we look for the next serious generic threats to human security: from human and animal disease, issues raised by scientific advance like genetic manipulation, or external disasters (meteorites, shifting of the Earth’s magnetic field)?

Before this approaches too close to science fiction, it is time to return to the beginning. The challenge is to develop coherent and properly prioritized security policies, including guidelines for the application of resources, in an environment of exponentially increasing complexity and uncertainty. One piece of advice worth repeating from above is to ‘Use a larger map’; i.e. avoid the snares both of short-term fashion and of an over-narrow focus. Another rule which would seem appropriate is to be permanently prepared to ‘break down boundaries’, in both a geographical and a professional sense. All trends point to the increased interaction and interdependence both of countries and regions, and of the different spheres of security (which is especially clear when the economic dimensions are added). External and internal, military and non-military, functional and human security are all interlinked today and will demand new conceptual and organizational approaches, making demands for pooling and coordination of expertise far beyond today’s ‘civil-military’ or ‘politico-military’ doctrines. Those seeking effective, positive and inclusive security solutions for the future must be ready to draw upon all relevant concepts and tools of law and order, of social management, science and technology, education and information, and must prepare for intensive public/private sector collaboration as well.

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